Many people I speak with these days are talking about feeling lonely. Some of these people live alone, others with partners, and others with families of one, two or even three generations. Yet, they talk about feeling lonely and isolated.
Part of what I am observing is that many people are feeling an increased desire to connect with others. It might be because it’s in the darkest time of the year, when the casual interactions between people are reduced due to the cold and darkness. It may be the result of the ubiquitous invasion of ‘Holiday Spirit’ in stores, signs and songs that surround us, reminding us to compare our holiday experiences with the idealized and unattainable examples presented to us. It may be the aftermath of a brutal political season, when words may or may not mean what they say, tempers were short, and tiptoeing around certain relatives was the only way to keep what passed as peace.
And now, just past the very end of the calendar year, a time for the old teenage loneliness of “What are you doing on New Year’s Eve?” to clash with the desire to make a new start for the New Year.
Friends. We need friends. We depend on them for company, laughter and reflections of who we are. But when so many people are feeling isolated, it’s sometimes hard to break through the sense of isolation to really make a connection.
Making new friends becomes harder as we age. Perhaps we have fewer opportunities for casual interactions with people. Perhaps we are so busy with the necessary demands of job, family, religious and civic responsibilities that friendships fall lower in our priorities. Perhaps we have become more cautious about being open, afraid of being rejected, or wanting to avoid painful confrontations about political differences, community issues or social concerns.
Some people get depressed. Others retreat into the false comforts of alcohol, food, gambling or narcotics. None of these help the loneliness; none help make the real connections that people are seeking.
How do we connect?
We take interpersonal risks. We might try speak honestly and openly in situations where simple trite statements are expected.
We reach out. We might call someone we know only slightly and suggest sharing a cup of tea. We might contact an old friend with whom we’ve lost contact and try to renew the relationship.
We reinforce the relationships we treasure. Too often we assume that a relationship is stable and strong, but fail to work to maintain it.
We join with others with mutual interests. Perhaps we find a neighborhood group, a congregation, a club or a class. Spending time with others doing something broadens our perspectives.
We act on our caring. We help someone, volunteer for an organization or give of our time and attention. Helping others helps us.
I was a failure in Girl Scouts. I only lasted two weeks, bored by the emphasis on uniforms and badges marking skills I wasn’t interested in gaining. But there’s one thing I remember. That song, repeated multiple times as a round: “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.”
That advice is relevant now, today. New friends are like silver: valuable but needing attention, polishing. Old friends are like gold, less likely to tarnish, but very precious, needing to be guarded, requiring an environment that is protected and safe.
While I’ll never be a Girl Scout, I’ll sing that song to the lonely people in my life.
Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, teaches about CryptoJews and Conversos of New Mexico for Road Scholar/Elderhostel and has private students. She directed the New Mexico Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program for 12 years, serving unaffiliated Jews throughout the state. A 2004 graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, she is the author of ?Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide?. Rabbi Kantrowitz is a former psychologist, a former architect/planner, a wife, mother and the proud Bubbie of three grandsons.